Karimah Westbrook is one of those faces you know, with a name you’ll soon see everywhere. The Chicago actress has been making the rounds on television for decades. She’s had guest roles on Girlfriends, ER, Moesha, and Aquarius. Lately, she’s had a powerful run in cinema. She starred in the 2003 film Baadasssss!. She gave a memorable performance as Papa Nebo in The Rum Diaries opposite Johnny Depp.
Now, Westbrook has taken on the interesting role of Mrs. Meyers, one-third of the first Black family to integrate the idyllic community of Suburbicon. If you’re Black, or have in any way paid attention to the news, the town’s reaction won’t surprise you. Westbrook spoke with West Coast Correspondent Joelle Monique about the true story that inspired the creation of her character, what it was like to be directed by George Clooney, and more.
Joelle Monique: Thank you so much for joining us, Karimah. I had a chance to see the movie last night. You were incredible.
Karimah Westbrook: Thank you.
Joelle: I wanted to ask you, right off the bat: I know that the story of the family that you play, the Meyers, is based off of a real story. They even had a documentary filmed about them called Crisis in Levittown. Did you get a chance to see it?
Westbrook: I did get a chance to see that. Once I learned a little more about it, that it was based on a true story, I started to do a lot of research. That was one of the things that they suggested.
Joelle: What was one lesson you took from that film that helped you to develop your character?
Westbrook: I felt like, from developing the story and learning more about who she was as a person, I realized that you don’t always have to meet people where they are.
I know that Michelle Obama said, “They go low. We go high.” But to see how much Meyer’s family actually went through—and the film is definitely an accurate account—really affected me. They actually have four children in real life. She had just had a newborn. So, if you can, imagine someone going through all of that for weeks on end. [The Meyers’ neighbors would bang on pots and pans and sing throughout the night to encourage them to leave.]
True story, the police weren’t helping them. They had to get the state’s Attorney General involved in order to get an injunction. But, they stood their ground. They believed that they deserved the right to obtain the American dream. Eventually, they did.
They stayed there for years on. So, it’s really taught me that you don’t have to fight fire with fire. There’s a way to handle things. Sometimes, for myself, personally, if someone comes at me crazy, I meet them at the same place. Either because I’m not really thinking or because I’m in my feelings.
Joelle: It’s human nature to try and meet someone where they’re at.
Westbrook: Yes. I felt like I probably would have moved. You know, like, “We’ve got to go. This is getting out of hand.” I would have been afraid.
Joelle: One of the things that stood out to me in your pre-interviews was when you said they weren’t afraid when they first arrived in their new town. They didn’t think anything was going to happen to them. I’m from Chicago and I know you’re from Chicago…
Joelle: Yes, ma’ma. My mom is from Chatham and my dad is from Blue Island.
Westbrook: That’s my mama over there. She’s from Chicago. I love you, mama.
Joelle: Hi, Mom! But, Chicago is still so segregated. I know there are still places where I am not always welcomed. I’m curious. How do you play that? Coming into this space, especially in the 1950’s, it’s hard for me to fathom not being afraid.
Westbrook: It was very admirable to know that they weren’t afraid. I got a lot of information from reading her book, Sticks’n Stones: The Myers Family in Levittown.
They actually knew people in the community. So that gave them a sense of not being alone. They felt like, in the north, their suffering would be less. A lot of times, racism and segregation, that was something we would hear a lot about in southern states. But the north was a little—not to say liberal, but they didn’t really have that overt racism. They really kind of felt like they were doing good. They could move into this community. They were able to buy a house from a friend of a friend. So they really did not have this big fear. That helped me understand them a little more.
If you are in Chicago and you’re going into an area where you feel like you’re not welcome, but you have a cousin that lives there, you might be OK. You know what I mean?
Joelle: That’s true, yeah.
Westbrook: It’s not going to be me by myself. I’ve got my cousin if something happens.
Joelle: Yeah, they’ll vouch for you because they’re from here.
Westbrook: That brought them a little comfort. I think that’s anywhere. You feel like if you’re not absolutely by yourself that gives you a little more confidence. You feel safer.
Joelle: I know you’re producing a lot of your own short films. We’re always looking for opportunities to support Black women working behind the camera. As lovely as you are in front of the camera, it’s great to hear and see our stories.
I’m curious, is there an opportunity where we can support your film work? Do you have a feature or anything coming up?
Westbrook: Oh, nice. Thank you. As an actor, I do have a few things coming out. I was just thinking about this. I didn’t say anything upstairs. I have a feature that’s coming out next year. It’s called Bolden. It’s a biopic about the man who created the sound of jazz. But I’m just an actor in that. As far as creating my own content, I don’t have anything. I have things in development. This last year I’ve done so much acting and writing that I haven’t had a chance to produce anything, yet. But I do have a couple of things in development. It’s too early to speak on them because I don’t know exactly what’s going to come first. But, you know, I will definitely connect with you guys on social media and let you know.
Westbrook: The support definitely helps.
Joelle: We would love that. We’re always looking for opportunities. I also wanted to ask you, what it was like working with George Clooney? Specifically, what was it like to be directed by him? He’s not just a talented actor, he’s also on his sixth film. He’s shown himself to be this incredible director. What was that experience like?
Westbrook: It was great to work with George Clooney. He’s an actor’s director. Because he’s an actor, he’s very intuitive. You see it in the way that he communicates. He thinks of things that you might need. He knows because he’s an actor. It was a fantastic experience.
Joelle: Did he give you guys a lot of space to breathe? I heard an actor talk about working with Wes Anderson who is known to be very specific. Is Clooney more hands-off in that way?
Westbrook: I got the sense that George really trusts his actors. In the very beginning, we had a conversation about the character and the role. After that, it was like… live. If there was anything that he had a different vision for he may give a note. But overall, he’s not trying to dictate you and your craft. I felt that he trusted the people that he had hired to do the work. He doesn’t really get that involved as far as micromanaging your interpretation of the work.
Joelle: Just one last question. I was reading that the wardrobe was designed to be very similar. This promotes the idea of sameness. Production Design duplicated this theme with rows of houses. I was wondering if there were any differences in your wardrobe. If there were, what were they?
Westbrook: The differences in my wardrobe from everyone else in the film… I don’t think there were many differences. Maybe I wasn’t as glamorized, but they were are all pieces from the 1950s. I’m not familiar with the clothes, overall. It’s hard for me to say, “She had the Prada and she had this.” I don’t know. It all looked like 50’s garb to me.
Joelle: Sure! I was trying to find the juxtaposition because, the way the story is set up, without giving away any spoilers, your family is at the center and we see things spiral out from there. I was curious about how the wardrobe layered the story. I’ll have to watch the movie again. There’s so much to unpack and it’s so densely layered and you were amazing in it. Thank you so much for taking the time. We really appreciate it.
Westbrook: Thank you. I will be in contact with Black Girl Nerds.
Catch Karimah Westbrook in Suburbicon alongside Matt Damon and Julieanne Moore in theaters October 27th, 2017.
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Joelle Monique is the co-creator and writer of the webcomic Harsh Mellow, a podcaster with Black Girl Nerds, a proud Hufflepuff, and a member of the water tribe. She resides in Los Angeles but her heart resides in Chicago.